The last time a major party held its nominating convention in New York City, I was among the tribe of protesters clamoring outside. I had hitchhiked from Oakland to Manhattan and, after adventures with a guy in Barstow who claimed he was jumping parole and barked, “I swear by my white skin!” after each beer, or the gentleman in southern Missouri who loaded the shotgun in his rifle rack and declared his intention to shoot the county sheriff on sight, I found myself before Madison Square Garden, ready to push the Democrats to the left with a few strategically timed obscenities. I didn’t exactly have a platform in mind, but felt sure that someone in New York would provide one, preferably having to do with undermining bourgeois democracy or creatively fucking shit up.
I don’t have to tell you I was disappointed. The rally in support of funding for AIDS research wasn’t exactly objectionable, but had a curiously saccharine, soccer-mom tenor embodied by its emcee, Jessica Lange. At least the strippers who clambered atop the marquees of the Times Square fleshpots and flashed their tits reminded us of what one typically is doing when contracting the disease. I finally found the edgier fare I sought at a marijuana rally in Washington Square — note the absence of the qualifier “medical.” As we marched northward and chanted “We smoke pot, and we like it a lot!,” we ran into a mob of Aristide supporters undulating in a voodoo trance. A fat traffic cop stood in the intersection, directing us to the thematically appropriate free-speech zone: “Okay, Haitians over here, pot smokers over there!” The next day, a “no police state” march organized by the Tompkins Square Park squatters produced exactly what we were rallying against, as roughly four thousand pounds of Staten Island beef clubbed us right and left. The great city absorbed and digested us without a second thought, and the machines of finance and industry rolled on. At least it was a week of fun.
Here’s the difference between then and now: No one was paying attention then. Today, the right-wing media infrastructure is so pervasive, its opposition researchers, broadcast proselytizers, and think-tankers so disciplined and coordinated, that any leftist misstep is immediately amplified through its echo chamber of talk radio and Murdoch media and spread to every breakfast table in America. George W. Bush has raised the stakes in this election higher than at any time since 1932, and the electorate is split right down the middle. If this country is going to be rid of That Man in the White House, there’s no room for error. The Democrats knew this in Boston, and their message discipline was as impressive as their candidate is not. But if 250,000 people really are about to take to the streets of New York City, some of them may be so intent upon looting a Starbucks that they will ruin the country in the process. And because the Bay Area is the epicenter of radical leftist thinking, a good many of them will come from right here.
If you guys haven’t left yet, here’s my wish: Break a leg. Literally. We could afford you in Seattle in 1999; in fact, you pretty much made the scene there. But in New York, a small army of Republican Party apparatchiks, Fox News television producers, and Wall Street Journal editorialists are waiting for you, and they’re a lot more sophisticated than you will ever be. They want you to smash windows and intimidate public safety officers here near the epicenter of Ground Zero; in fact, they’ll be looking right over your shoulder, rolling videotape. On prime time that night, your bandanna’d visage will be on fourteen million televisions in Florida, Ohio, and every other swing state, and your crude epithets will settle into the brains of every undecided retiree or unemployed steel worker. Of course, you may not care a whit about the November election and may even hew to the ridiculous notion that a Bush re-election will radicalize the public and shorten the days till the revolution. But on the off chance that some of you are still listening, hear this plea: stay home, and knit a sweater or something.
According to Jeff Patterson, an organizer with the local branch of the antiwar group Not in Our Name, convention week will be a full one. The Stalinist front group ANSWER will stage a big rally in Central Park on August 28, the centerpiece march organized by the coalition United for Peace and Justice will take place on August 29, and the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign will probably march across the Brooklyn Bridge on August 30. But the moment most fraught with tension will undoubtedly occur on August 31, “civil disobedience day.” That morning, Patterson says, affinity groups are scheduled to fan out to hotels housing the convention delegates, where they will sit in lobbies, link arms, and confront delegates as they munch on their continental breakfasts. “Madison Square Garden’s going to be a fortress,” Patterson says, “so people are wondering if they can make their voices heard by going to the hotels.”
Does anyone really need to be convinced what a disaster this could become? It’s one thing to prank the convention cleverly; the antiwar group Code Pink has some funny plans to plant pro-war cheerleaders outside the Fox News studios and crash the Republican Party’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” event — expect something like a cadre of emaciated, soulless Holly Golightly figures slurping martinis and bragging about how great the war has been for their Halliburton stock. But the prospect of dreadlocked college kids trapping delegates in their hotel rooms — folks who are much more likely to be Indiana chiropractors than operatives of Karl Rove — makes me want to pop all the Vicodin my liver can take and sleep until November. And let’s not begin to contemplate the public’s reaction if a few anarchists take advantage of the chaos and smash a few Tiffany lamps in the foyers.
Rest assured, Murdoch’s minions also will be right there in those lobbies, slavering over the spectacle. According to assignment editor Sarah Courtney of the Fox News politics desk, her network plans to have at least three teams of producers, reporters, and cameramen bird-dogging the protests throughout the week. “We haven’t solidified all the teams yet,” she says, “but we have every intention of making the protests a big part of the convention coverage.” An assistant to National Review editor Rich Lowry said the magazine will almost assuredly dedicate considerable space to the demo’s crazier antics. Steve Gray, who works at the city desk for the New York Post, promises to do the same: “If something that’s offbeat comes up, it’ll definitely be covered.” A spokesperson for the right-wing Washington Times claims that the paper sent up a reporter to cover the demonstrations two weeks ago. “If the protests get out of control, we’ll beef it up,” he added.
Add to this the dizzying array of Republican Party war-room staffers, subsidiary organizers, and ordinary losers who make a pastime of baiting the Left in order to fill the void in their lives, and you have a frighteningly thorough attack machine on standby. Editors from FrontPage, the online magazine founded by David Horowitz, the former Ramparts editor who has transformed himself into a professional scourge of the Left, did not return a phone call, but they will almost assuredly be there with videocameras and notepads. (Just in case you think Horowitz is irrelevant, his annual “Restoration weekend” conference regularly draws such luminaries as Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham.) Contributors to WorldNetDaily, a Web site NPR listeners scoff at but which has enormous clout among the populist right-wing media, have already begun publishing tracts like “Will Republican convention be a Chicago ’68 madhouse?” And young, sad, self-loathing devotees of such fringe groups as FreeRepublic.com and Protest Warriors will serve as the shock troops, spending hours trying to bait protesters into petty fights, recording the exchanges, and shipping the most ludicrous moments straight to Rush Limbaugh.
As the communications director for the group Peace Action, Scott Lynch is about as mainstream a guy as you’ll see on the streets of New York. Last week, he put in an appearance on the Fox News prime-time shoutfest Hannity and Colmes, where, he claims, cohost Sean Hannity repeatedly tried to portray the upcoming demonstrations as a hotbed of chaos. “The interview ended with him saying he thought the demonstrations at the RNC would be good for the Republican Party, and if we were to get out of control, which he knows we’re capable of, the American public will be repulsed and it would be good for the Republicans,” Lynch says. “He tried to insinuate that peace groups, specifically Peace Action, would get out of control, and there would be violence, and everyone would be made less safe. … Their point of entry on the violence is of course the ‘Black Bloc’ demonstrators, the much-feared anarchists. They’re going to focus on those folks, and they know who they are.”
Over the last few years, but especially since the outbreak of the war, the Black Bloc has emerged as the locus of militant street action during big demonstrations. Presumably modeled after the Autonomen of West Berlin, they dress all in black and weave in and out of larger demonstrations, using the crowd as cover to throw bricks at the cops or loot stores. In the weeks leading up to the convention, more mainstream organizers have repeatedly tried to contact what passes for leadership of this ad-hoc coagulation, pleading with them to abandon property damage during the critical week. Some have even proposed that Black Bloc members wear khaki instead of their traditional attire. But even as Medea Benjamin, the Bay Area activist and cofounder of Code Pink, was sending out such suggestions, she was fending off requests from Fox News and conservative MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough to come on the air and “defend the anarchists.” She immediately declined. “We want to show a positive face to our movement,” she says. “We don’t want to give Fox TV a chance to discredit us in the eyes of the public.”
No one knows how many anarchists are planning to show up for the convention. It may well be that the Black Bloc members are savvy enough to recognize how counterproductive their usual antics will be, and will sing “Kumbaya” just like everybody else. But Code Pink organizer Andrea Buffa frets that just a few dedicated militants could upset the whole project. “I’m worried too,” she says, “and we are going to write an open letter to journalists asking them to be fair and balanced, and not focus on the most outrageous thing that three people do, instead of the thing that a hundred thousand people do.”
I usually think dignity is overrated, but during convention week, it’s the best weapon we’ve got. An ayatollah is running the Justice Department; Enron’s day traders have been caught on record boasting how the Bush administration would let them bleed California dry; the Food and Drug Administration is in the hands of high priests pretending to be scientists; and somewhere in America, an innocent Arab lies naked and afraid in a windowless cell. You have the power to help free him. All you have to do is put that bandanna back in your drawer.
If you won’t listen to me, perhaps you’ll listen to David Corn. As Washington editor of The Nation, Corn has leftist credentials that stretch a country mile, and he’s terrified that a few crazies are about to destroy the hard work of millions of people. “My advice is to stay home,” he says. “To greet Bush with silent derision. … They’re obviously waiting for a naked lesbian anarchist to shoot a finger at a policeman, to show that the opposition to Bush is crazy, out of the mainstream, people that Americans should be afraid of.”
Awright, you naked lesbians. You heard the man. Just this once, please do what the patriarchy says.